Complicating the narrative on Trayvon Martin

In light of the Trayvon Martin case, Div. 51 discusses ways to confront beliefs, values and attitudes that perpetuate racism.

By Christopher T. H. Liang, PhD, Sam Wan, PhD, and Jennifer Primack, PhD

Members of the Racial and Ethnic Minority Special Interest Group of the APA Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity (Div. 51) have met to discuss issues related to the murder of Trayvon Martin during the past two APA conventions. During the Orlando convention, discussion focused on the events and factors leading to the murder of Trayvon Martin. That discussion centered on stereotypes and assumptions about the case. A focus on masculinity issues as well as in-depth analysis was the focus of discussion during this past APA. Below, we summarize our thoughts from our conversations at these meetings as well as the remarks of Christopher Liang during his Presidential Address to the Division.

As a division, we believe it is important to focus on violence prevention, and to understand, as well as influence, societal messages about the value of the lives of men. Because acts of violence, particularly those cases that involve men of color, include many factors, we believe in the need to complicate the narrative. We believe media reports simplify violence, particularly those that are race-based. One way that the media often portrays the dialogue on racism is to dichotomize the narrative, e.g., black vs. white, things are better vs. worse, or racist vs. not. However, this effort to characterize the issues in this manner can lead to a neglect of a great deal of the more complex and nuanced aspects of the issues. Indeed, as a division we call for a collective effort to reverse this influence and in fact, complicate the narrative in order to tackle the more insidious and persistent beliefs, values and attitudes that perpetuate racism. 

One way to complicate the narrative is to highlight the complexities of men in general. While men in general may be stereotyped as aggressive and violent, we need to continue to study how acceptance of masculine norms influences men’s use of violence. For instance, how and why did George Zimmerman ignore directions from law enforcement to stop his pursuit of Trayvon Martin. Aside from individual level factors, how did masculine scripts shape his attitudes and behaviors that night? How did internalized masculine scripts and implicit assumptions of young Black men lead Zimmerman to his decision to continue his pursuit?

Another way to complicate the narrative is to understand how the experiences of boys and men of color with gender stereotypes are heightened by a history of racism that has resulted in deeply engrained assumptions of them as hyper-aggressive, hyper-violent and threatening. We want to delve deeper into the intersections of racism, social class and racial and gender socialization of boys of color. We feel the strong need to understand how young boys of color growing up in the United States experience violence and the degree to which they internalize and act upon messages they receive about being boys of color. We are concerned about how these experiences shape their sense of personal safety, their beliefs about masculinity and violence, and the value of their own lives. To that end, we believe it would be important to understand how the subtle or overt messages involving men of color affect the beliefs and attitudes, and ultimately, the lives of boys of color. We hope to develop a better understanding of these processes to influence and shape more positive outcomes.

Another way to complicate the narrative is to focus attention on challenging the implicit assumptions of boys and men of color held by law enforcement, educators, psychologists and judges. We believe that implicit assumptions, which contribute to dehumanizing boys and men of color, puts ethnic minority individuals at risk for disparities in education, psychological problems, as well as incarceration rates. As such, we encourage the development of legal, mental health and educational policy, training programs, and services that are sensitive to how race, masculinity, sexism, social class and other dimensions of diversity intersect. 

In closing, we will continue our efforts to complicate the narrative through dialogue within our division and will engage others interested in collaborating in research to inform discussions on clinical and educational practice, as well as mental health, legal and educational policy.